When Home Improvement Is Self-Improvement
These are times of primal screams. Sociologists talk about the widespread loneliness that has settled into the fragile spaces of Americans’ lives; the winter of 2022, with its compounding crises, has brought a new acuity to the isolation. Burnouts and breaking points are now part of journalism’s vernacular, the frustrations they’ve brought sharpened by the sense of what might have been in their place. Where there might have been solidarity, there is solitude. Where there might have been people coming together to help one another, there is instead, for many, an empty echo: You’re on your own.
Pop culture, always ready to alchemize anxiety into entertainment, has been weaving that sense of abandonment into its stories. Scripted TV series—Station Eleven, Yellowjackets, Squid Game, and many others—are telling timely tales of people forced to fend for themselves. But reality TV, too, is grappling with this moment of ambient isolation. Take, for example, a new crop of shows from HGTV, the network that has spent years flipping real estate into breezy escapism. Unfinished Business stars a “home-renovation coach” who helps people fix both their house and their mindset. Holmes Family Rescue has a similar premise; so does Help! I Wrecked My House. Tough Love With Hilary Farr finds the celebrity designer swooping in, godmother-like, to aid clients whose problems, as she puts it, “are way bigger than bad floorplans.”
The home in America has long functioned as a metaphor—for private life; for individual aspiration; for, above all, control. These shows stridently reverse that symbolism. In them, homes are sites of disorder. Their featured clients, some seeking new renovations and others facing DIY gone SOS, have all reached their own breaking point. And they are saved, episode after episode, by professionals who promise that most basic and yet most controversial of commodities: a helping hand. The new home makeovers, in that sense, are offering not escapism, but catharsis. They are taking that old standby, conspicuous consumption, and giving it a timely new twist. They are selling conspicuous collaboration.
The typical home-renovation show is formulaic in its fantasies. Over the course of an hour or so, a house deemed unworkable—by its residents, and by the strict commercial standards of HGTV—is transformed: an outdated duckling remade into a curb-appealed, open-concept swan. The formula usually acknowledges the homeowners while also shooing them away until, in an episode’s final moments, they’re brought back to witness their new home’s assorted amazements. On Tough Love With Hilary Farr, though, a different kind of transaction emerges. Here, it’s the residents of the houses who are renovated, their walls broken down, their new foundations laid.
Farr, like a House for wayward homeowners, treats design as a diagnostic tool. In one episode, she helps a family who have come back to the States after a long deployment abroad—and soon determines that their cluttered space is a symptom of their ambivalence about their return to America. In another, a woman and her daughter are moving into the house her new husband once shared with his daughter and ex-wife; the point of her renovation, Farr soon surmises, will be to create a house that will feel like home, equally, to each member of the newly blended family. Function, in these cases, follows form. The revamped floor plans, the idea goes, will nudge their residents into living more fulfilled lives. Farr, an HGTV favorite from her years as a co-host of Love It or List It, sells herself not just as a design expert, but also as an agent of compassion: a coach who does her coaching with the help of tile samples and paint swatches.
At the end of each episode, this being HGTV, Farr leads her clients through their newly customized home as the camera pans, with vaguely voyeuristic zeal, across gleaming chandeliers and cheeky accent walls. But the “big reveal,” here, is anticlimactic: The real emotional payoff has come earlier, as Farr sits down with the homeowners to render her diagnosis of their needs. These heart-to-heart conversations, sometimes scored by the music of a plaintive piano or accompanied by clients’ tears, take on an air of solemn ceremony. The homeowners have sought Farr’s help. Now, before the cameras, they are receiving it. “It’s like therapy,” Tom, one of Farr’s clients, says. Tough Love is happy to adopt this branding. Farr, at one point, refers to her job as “designer … project manager, and therapist.”
You might see, in all that, yet more evidence of pop culture’s embrace of armchair psychology—Home & Garden Television, shifting its gaze to the walls and windows of the human heart. And you might see something cynical, definitely, in a message that offers commercial solutions to emotional challenges: Ask, and ye shall retile your bathroom. But also discernible in Tough Love’s message is a corrective kind of grace. Asking for help, after all, runs counter to many of America’s most adamant myths: the moral superiority of self-sufficiency, the quiet dignity of suffering. Tough Love rejects those ideas. Instead, it celebrates the people who realize they have a problem they can’t solve on their own. It treats the admission as the first step toward salvation. “I’m not here to judge,” Farr tells a client whose home, and whose life, she has come to rehabilitate. “I’m here to help.”
Tough Love premiered in late December; a few weeks later, Unfinished Business made its HGTV debut. The show stars Tom Reber, an ex-Marine turned contractor who promises to rescue people from self-attempted rehabs gone wrong. His show, like Farr’s, makes liberal use of therapy’s lexicon. “You want to build your confidence, and one of the ways you do that is you honor the commitments that you make to yourself,” he says of a homeowner who has allowed a project to drag on for years. Another of his coach-ees reveals in a talking-head interview that, because of Reber’s help, “I feel more empowered.”
Reber emphasizes action: He gives his clients homework assignments to keep the timelines he has created for them on track. He repeats the mantra, borrowed from fitness culture, that they must put in the work not only to achieve the results they want but also to be worthy of them. Reber rejects quick fixes and miracle cures. “I’m here to help them,” he says, gravely, of the people he coaches—“but they’ll have to do the heavy lifting.”
Those caveats are finely calibrated. “Help … but” is a message fit for a time when do-it-yourself might function as either a promise or a threat. It reflects a moment when many Americans are redrawing the line between self and society—and reconsidering, in the process, those most basic of relationships: between the citizen and the state; between the employer and the employee; between the doctor and the patient; between the social forces that bear down on people’s lives and the weighty rhetoric of “personal responsibility.” COVID is not the only reason for those new negotiations. But two years of life lived under its regimes have laid bare, for many, what happens when people who need help are told instead, You’re on your own. “By now,” the doctor and writer Lucy McBride wrote last summer, “burnout is a given.”
Reber’s show, like Farr’s, acknowledges the people who feel adrift. But it also expresses revealing ambivalence about the nature of assistance itself: Reber offers help, not handouts, Unfinished Business goes out of its way to make clear. Tough Love, its title alone suggesting paradigms in conflict, can also be curt in its compassions. At one point Farr, whose persona on Love It or List It is impishly acerbic, compares herself to Mary Poppins. And then she adds an asterisk. “Clearly,” she says, “I’m a bit short on the sugar.”
A good way to understand a culture is to get to know how it thinks about both help and self-help. “Our views on self-improvement ultimately tell us not only who we are, but how we think about others,” Anna Katharina Schaffner, a cultural historian, writes in The Art of Self-Improvement: Ten Timeless Truths. The book is a sweeping survey, from Confucius and Socrates and Mary Baker Eddy to Tony Robbins and other modern-day ministers of the self. But it is also a meditation on ever-evolving ideas about what the individual owes to society, and vice versa.
Those are, at their edges, the same ideas explored in reality shows that promise people better lives through better houses. If homes are symbols of individual agency, hosts such as Reber and Farr are metaphors not only for home improvement but also for child care, for health care, for social assistance, and, in general, for the elemental relief of collective action. Catharsis can take many forms. And when the hosts equivocate about the help they offer, by the same token, they are participating in long-standing debates. Schaffner sums up some of the human stakes at play when cultures build, or demolish, their structures of support:
Are laziness, lack of discipline, or character weakness to blame if we fail to succeed in life? … What is in our control and what is not? And following on from that, for what can we be held personally responsible?
Such questions, Schaffner points out, are not merely philosophical. Their answers are directly political. They inform public policies, from the size of the safety net to the shape of taxes, of health care, of education, of housing. And so do the many other ideas sold through the multibillion-dollar self-help industry. The mind-cure movement, which arose in the 19th century and in one form sold the intoxicating promise that one’s life could be changed by one’s will, has its echoes today—not just in the continued popularity of books such as The Power of Positive Thinking and the recent mega–best seller Girl, Wash Your Face, but also in the rise of manifestation advisers and the promise of scripting the life you want. Mind cure and its adjuncts tend to emphasize the agency of the individual while discounting structural forces. They turn autonomy into a marketing message. Self-care was once a recognition of systematized political abandonment; today, the term is being used to sell bath mats.
HGTV, equal parts Aesop and aspiration, is engaging with those ideas, whether it means to or not. Fixer Upper is engaging with them. So are Home Town and Property Brothers. And so are Tough Love and Unfinished Business. The latter two shows, like their older counterparts, churn out fantasies of home ownership into a culture that makes such dreams, for many, impossible to realize. But they also attempt empathy. They reject the axiom “You’re on your own”—and its related proviso “You get what you deserve”—for a more realistic kind of fable: Everyone, at some point, will need help. That is not a failure. That is part of what it means to be human.
And so reality TV, making its gambles about what might resonate with people this cold winter, turns aid into an incantation. “We had to get help. I couldn’t continue the project—we needed to get help,” a man says in HGTV’s Help! I Wrecked My House. Jessica, a client on Netflix’s Get Organized With the Home Edit, tells the organization experts Clea and Joanna, “I need you so much!” Mike Holmes, the head coach–contractor on Holmes Family Rescue, says of a family he helps that, “for us to come in and make a difference and save them, it’s going to change their lives.” On Netflix’s Sparking Joy With Marie Kondo, a couple who have asked Kondo to help improve their spaces and their psyches discuss what her aid has meant to them. “I haven’t wanted to say that for so long, like, that I need help, because you need help too,” Ben tells his wife, Joanna. Joanna counters his concern. “I think it’s important for you to be able to say, like, ‘Hey, help,’” she says. “It’s hard!”
“Yeah,” he agrees. “It is hard.”
Exchanges like that, in an earlier era, would likely have been cut: They wouldn’t have served the plot. Now, though, they double as the moral core of their respective shows. In the pilot episode of Unfinished Business, Reber gives Tony, a procrastinating kitchen remodeler, a lesson in proper drywall installation. The coach asks Tony how he feels now that he has the skills he needs to do the work himself. “I feel pretty good,” Tony replies. “I feel like I can get this part done.”
“All ’cause you asked for help?” Reber says.
“All ’cause I asked for help.”